July 11, 2016

An Opportunity for Kurdish Self-Determination


Kurdish Peshmerga forces keep watch in a village east of Mosul, Iraq, May 29, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

By Mark Besonen

Based in an increasingly autonomous Iraqi Kurdish Region, Kurdish nationalists confront an unusually favorable strategic position during a volatile time in the Middle East. The Syrian state has collapsed into civil war. Iraq is distracted internally by political gridlock and externally by the Islamic State. International sympathy and support for the Kurds’ own fight against ISIS is increasing. The congruence of these factors present Kurdish nationalists with a historic opportunity: the potential to create an independent Kurdish state.

The Syrian conflict, devastating in its scope and human costs, nevertheless offers Kurdish nationalists an opportunity to benefit from the chaos. While the Syrian government has waged a life-or-death struggle against rebel and extremist groups, Syrian Kurds have carved out an autonomous region in the country’s north, driving extremist groups south and creating semi-autonomous Kurdish governing institutions. Adjoining neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan to the east, this entity, while still in its early stages, puts Syria’s Kurdish population in a prime position to either dictate terms of reentry into a post-war federal Syria or to attempt to join Iraqi Kurds in the creation of a Kurdish state.

Iraqi internal political strife and external military setbacks against the Islamic State likewise have created a significant opportunity for Iraqi Kurds. Out of the ashes of sectarian strife, they have created a nearly independent region with its own energy, economic, and foreign policies, as well as governing institutions and security forces to both fill a vacuum and enhance Kurdish autonomy. For instance, the Kurds have deepened economic ties with neighboring Turkey through oil exports. These profits will fill the coffers of Kurdish-controlled banks instead of the Iraqi treasury, allowing for greater financial independence from Baghdad. Such developments could be seen as potential foundations for eventual statehood, and movement in that direction may become increasingly attractive to Kurdish nationalists in the face of current Iraqi political and strategic realities.

Finally, the war against the Islamic State also presents a historic opportunity to Kurdish nationalists by demonstrating the value of Kurdish-centered groups. While the Iraqi military has suffered well-documented defeats and reversals at the hands of the Islamic State, Kurdish Peshmerga units have been widely hailed by observers as a serious and legitimate resistance to further extremist gains. Indeed, while the United States and its allies continue to support Iraqi military forces, deepening partnerships with Kurdish units also have led to high-profile defeats of the Islamic State in northern Iraq. In Syria, while Assad’s forces have concentrated mainly on defeating the armies of the regime’s political opponents, Kurdish militias in the north have been successful in seizing territory from ISIS, resulting in praise and support from the United States. This support has come in the forms of increased airborne surveillance and deepened ties with U.S. Special Forces units in order to coordinate operations between American air units and Kurdish ground forces. International support for these Kurdish military units could translate into greater political support for the Kurds if the status quo continues.

Obstacles to any further autonomy for Kurdish regions in northern Syria and Iraq, or eventual independence, remain daunting. Iran and Turkey, with Kurdish populations of their own, would most likely vehemently oppose such movements for fear of similar movements gaining momentum in their countries. Coupled with this, Syria and Iraq would not look kindly on the loss of further oversight over significant sectors of territory, let alone the irrevocable loss of that territory into a new state. Syrian and Iraqi Kurds themselves disagree on the way forward politically, so a union between the two would be difficult. Finally, while international and American support in the fight against the Islamic State has been significant, there is little guarantee that such support would translate into approval for any independence movement, especially amid American calls for a unified and democratic future for both Syria and Iraq. International isolation could well ensue if the Kurds declared their independence.

Despite these obstacles, current geopolitical realities in Iraq and Syria offer Kurdish nationalists the best opportunity for statehood that the Kurdish people have had in a century. While the pragmatic option of continued or further autonomy under a federal state in both instances may well remain Kurdish policy, the allure of statehood for an often-dispossessed and oppressed regional minority may well prove too great a force to be overcome.

Mark Besonen is an intern at the Council and a student at the University of Minnesota.

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.

Archive




| By J. Thomas Chapin

J. Thomas Chapin: Batteries as the Base of the City

"It seems as if batteries, more specifically lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, are everywhere," J. Thomas Chapin, vice president of research at UL, explained at the 2019 Pritzker Forum on Global Cities in Chicago



Wait Just a Minute: Jess Fanzo

Jess Fanzo, professor of food policy and ethics and editor-in-chief of Global Food Security Journal, takes a minute to answer questions on why obesity is rising across the globe and what can be done about it.


| By Ian Klaus

Mind the Knowledge Gaps: What Global Conferences Bring to Light

Despite the vast amount of research and data available, it shouldn’t be surprising that large gaps in urban knowledge persist. After all, there are many cities—according to the IPCC and UN data, there are around 1000 urban agglomerations with populations of 500,000 or greater—and cities remain difficult to know.





Wait Just a Minute: Klaus Schwab

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), takes a minute to answer questions about the fourth industrial revolution and what it means for globalization and equality. 




| By Amy Webb

Wait Just a Minute: Amy Webb

Futurist Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute and NYU professor, takes a minute to answer questions about artificial intelligence and whether its advancement is in the long-term interest of humanity.


| By Brian Hanson, Penny Abeywardena, Henri-Paul Normandin

Deep Dish: City Diplomacy on the Rise

As cities grow in size and power, and as technology and globalization further lower the cost of connecting across distances, local governments are increasingly shaping their own diplomatic agendas independent from national governments.